Want to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.
China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!
Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!
If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.
China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:
the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.